Writing about religion

It’s Good Friday, which is a religious holiday and that’s as good an excuse as any to do some writing about religion. Actually, Dan’s blog entry “The Soulful Atheist” also got me thinking about it a while back. In any case, here are my thoughts.

The last time I had any feelings which could be described as religious was sometime around 1978. Prior to that date, I can recall having thoughts that made it clear to me I never doubted the existence of some kind of supreme being in the universe. I remember watching Little House On the Prairie in our family room in Somerset, New Jersey, and wondering if God was simply a giant, invisible person who made us move around, talk, sleep, eat, and so forth. But around 1978 or 1979 that began to change.

Why that should be I am not certain, but I have several theories. For one, I was a curious child, always wondering how things worked. For another, around that time, my parents gave me a telescope and I began to get my first direct look at how vast the universe was. Moreover, I remember reading my first astronomy book (and possibly my first science book) over and over again. The book was The Nine Planets. All of this, I think, conspired to force me question my beliefs. The beliefs that I held at the time were those of a child, inherited from his surroundings: parents, television, books and stories. They were literal beliefs and literal beliefs, it seems to me, are the easiest to dispel with reason.

For instance, my Aunt Rose used to stay with us from time to time and when she put me to bed, she would have me say a prayer beforehand: “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” I had little sense of what I was praying for, but I did know what death was and I knew enough to be afraid of it. I somehow got it into my head that so long as I said this prayer, I wouldn’t die in my sleep and for quite some time, I said it under my breath after I went to bed. I don’t think anyone ever knew this. And yet, at some point, this phase passed and I forgot to say the prayer. I seemed to come through the night just fine and I took my chances and didn’t say it again. Then I realized that for years before my aunt ever taught me the prayer, no harm came to me. While I didn’t consciously make the connection, I began to realize that the prayer itself did nothing for me.

I continued my pursuit of science. I remember walking to school with my best friend and explaining how the earth spun on its axis. I got much of it wrong. For instance, I remember explaining that it was the spinning that allowed us to walk–that the earth moved under our feet. But nevertheless, I was learning. I experimented with thought problems, although I didn’t know what they were at the time. Walking into our house in New Jersey, there was an L-shaped utility closet. If you walked to the right of the closet, you entered the living room. If you walked to the left, you entered the dining room. Of course, you could walk all the way around so either way would get you to where you are going. And yet I distinctly remember standing at that intersection for minutes wondering if the course of my life would be different if I walked either right or left. Without knowing it at the time, I was asking myself: do I have free will?

Religion is often used to explain what happens after you die. This was never an issue for me. I remember watching sadly the tribute in 1978 to Thurmon Munson, catcher for the New York Yankees. He had died tragically. We were in the family room and I was sitting with my mom and I asked her what it meant to die. She told me it was like going to sleep and never waking up again, which I must admit, initially frightened me. But there was never any mystery to it. Death with the end of life and that was it. I never needed any kind of hereafter to make me feel better. I simply accepted it as my mom explained it, down to this very minute. Of course, I brooded about death as all children do growing up. But the fact that it was something that no one escapes made me feel much better about it. All of the heroes that I had read about from George Washington to Thomas Edison all had to die at some point. If they were brave enough to handle the fact and still live remarkable lives, why so could I.

I was brought up Jewish, but we celebrated Christmas also because my grandparents celebrated it. I can recall participating in Seders, and reciting the Four Questions (Ma nish tana ha lila ha zeh…). We celebrated Hanukkah and I can recall lighting the candles each night. For a time, my mom even celebrated the Sabbath. For some reason, I associated none of it with religion. It was all just ritual to me, and frankly, I didn’t understand it. I explained it to myself as Something That Parents Did. To be a good boy, I went along with it. This grew to be more difficult.

Sometime in 1982 I think, I started attending Hebrew School and Sunday School in order to begin preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. I can remember my first session of Hebrew school as if it were yesterday. I was fascinated by it for I was learning to read, write and speak in a foreign language. The fascination quickly wore off. It turned out I was taught just enough to get by, and because of that, I never grew interested enough in the language to make it useful. (Although, like any 10 year old, I managed to learn as many curse words in Hebrew as I could absorb.) Sunday school was even worse. By the time I was 10, I felt that my belief system had begun to solidify and that system did not include religion. In fact, it didn’t include much of anything that could be considered supernatural. Past the age of 10, I never recall being afraid of monsters under the bed, ghosts, demons in the closet for the very reason that I took it for granted they didn’t exist. This really isn’t that remarkable. Once I realized that the prayer I said as a child had no impact on whether or not I died in my sleep, I gave it up. Once I realized that monsters didn’t exist, I simply took it for granted. In fact, I began to think friends of mine who believed in monsters to be foolish.

Sunday school was an attempt to make me believe in monsters and I grew to hate it with a passion. When we moved to California and I continued my Hebrew studies and religious studies there, it grew even worse. I remember begging and pleading not to have to go. But off I went. Questioning the teachers was not encouraged in my Sunday school and so my natural curiosity was a strike against me. Add to that the fact that I had by now read plenty of science books from the library and found that I liked how things could be explained rationally, by “figuring them out”. Furthermore, I’d read all kinds of myths, and faerie tales and I wasn’t sure how the stories I was being told from the Bible were any different from the myths and faerie tales I read. I found it remarkable that other students in the class didn’t feel the same way.

All of this affected me and actually slowed my progress. Normally, a bar mitzvah is done around your 13th birthday. Mine wasn’t done until three months after my birthday, mainly because I wasn’t ready. I still had catching up to do. I hated the preparation. The cantor would sing my Torah and Haftorah portions into a cassette and I would take it home and practice. Some of the tune still lingers in my memory, but now as then, I have no idea what I was saying. And while I somehow managed to pull off a coup and actually get through the ceremony without any mistakes, I did it for my parents and not for me. It was the last straw and it turned me off religion for good. I felt guilty about this, for though I told the Rabbi that I planned on continuing my studies, it was a lie and I knew it. Looking back on it, I think 13 years of age if far too young to ask a boy if he is ready to obey all of the laws of his religion. He still doesn’t understand most of them at that point. A responsibility like that should be put off until at least 18 years of age–after all, we can’t vote until we are 18. But tradition carries the day.

So from the age of thirteen on, I have been more or less free from religion and much happier because of it. Today, I consider myself an atheist, which is a bad word these days. In addition, it explains what I don’t believe, but not what I do. I believe in reason and scientific method and anything that can be demonstrated through logic and experiment. I don’t believe in anything that cannot. People speak of communing with God, or feeling the presence of God. I’ve never felt this. I have, however, been humbled by the universe and by how much mankind has learned about the universe and our place in it through reason and experimentation, and I have felt a kind of awe and reverence for this.

I don’t knock people for their religious beliefs, although back in college, I used to. There are numerous social, moral, and cultural benefits to religion and I respect that. Fortunately, for me, I feel I’ve gotten all of those benefits without the need for religion. I try to do good, not because I want to be rewarded by going to heaven, but simply because it is the right thing to do. I do tend to be more vocal on non-religious subjects of supernatural ridiculousness: ESP, UFOs, psi powers, palm reading, fortune telling and the like. These I have a tougher time tolerating and I think I was influenced here by by reading of Isaac Asimov, James Randi, Carl Sagan, Martin Gardner and others. I have many friends who are religious, some deeply religious and they find happiness and wholeness within their faith. I’m happy for them.

What I really can’t tolerate is people who feel that they must persuade me or convert me to their particular beliefs, specifically and generally. Specifically in the sense that I have known people who haven’t approved of my apostasy and who have lectured me or tried to save my soul. Generally in the way that the population at large is suspicious of people without religion or who call themselves atheists. I am comfortable with my beliefs. I am, in fact, exceedingly happy with them. They have provided me a window in the marvels of the universe that I might not have otherwise had. They provide me with a window into my fellow man that I might not otherwise have had.

Isaac Asimov had a good line about the people who would condemn him to hell for his beliefs. He would say, “You believe that when I die, I will go to hell and suffer all of the pains and tortures that your deity can dream up, and that this suffering will go on forever. Isn’t that enough? Must you call me bad names too?” I couldn’t agree more.


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